A Quick Tour of Vence Makes You Want to Return
It was a hot, humid August day, so we took our time over lunch in a restaurant near the Place du Grand Jardin. None of us had much energy to wander, even though our plan was for Steve Wilkison to give us a walking tour of his adopted hometown. Steve, a self-declared Francophile, finally convinced his wife Carole to move to Vence in May 2019. Before that, they lived in Nashville, among other places in the United States. The long lunch provided the opportunity to have a great conversation with Steve about living in Vence and exploring the Alpes Maritimes on foot, bike, and other means. Here is a fun article about Train de Pignes à Vapeur.
The photos in this article are all ©Steve Wilkison unless otherwise indicated.
Arriving in Vence from the Mediterranean coast is an easy drive. The town is about a 40-minute drive from Nice. Medieval ramparts still encircled Vence’s old village, with a few preserved gateways leading to or from the newer sections of town. Inside the ancient stone walls (intra-muros) is like opening a treasure chest. Vence’s old streets are pedestrian-friendly and narrow enough to make you wonder how trucks could make deliveries to the restaurants, cafés and food purveyors.
Vence’s old town is circular. Five (5) gateways allow access to the picturesque streets, shaded squares, and the smallest Cathedral in France. The Cathedral was built in the 4th century on the foundations of a Roman Temple. While the Roman-era footings are not evident inside the church, the Roman impact is visible in columns and inscriptions in Place Clemenceau and Place du Grand Jardin.
Quick Tour of Vence
After lunch, our time window had shrunk to less than an hour for visiting Vence. So Steve gave us a condensed walking tour of the Vence old town and details about the town’s history. During the Middle Ages, this hilltop village had ramparts and gates to protect against rogue forces. Restoration work has preserved the rampart walls and five (5) gateways – Port d’Orient, Porte de Signadour, Porte Alsace-Lorraine, Porte du Peyra, and Porte du Portail Levis.
Before entering the old town via Porte du Peyra, Steve directed us to a viewpoint, the Belvédère Fernand Moutet. From there is a panoramic visit of the Col de Vence and Baou des Blancs, some of the Alpes Maritimes rolling hills (baous). Steve might have also tested our recall for the Elvis Costello hit tune “I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down.” The video was filmed in Vence, and one of the sequences was filmed on the Belvédère about 40 years ago. Steve breaks down the video and familiar sections of Vence here (dancing along is encouraged!).
Passionate about history and Vence, Steve volunteers as a docent at Cathédrale Notre Dame de la Nativité (the small Cathedral). So, he pointed out some of the interesting architectural elements in this church, which is a mélange of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque styles. Religious history is weaved tightly in Vence’s past as the Cathédrale Notre Dame de la Nativité was the power centre of the diocese of Vence. This church may be small, but the depth of archival material is outstanding, including the tomb of Saint Véran (5th century Gallo-Roman sarcophagus), beautifully carved wooden stalls, and a mosaic by artist Marc Chagall from 1979. Find more details about the Cathédrale Notre Dame de la Nativité here.
A quick 60-minute tour of Vence barely scraped the surface of the things to see in this town. Luckily, we had Steve to shepherd us to the most important sites and give us enough of a taste to make us want to return soon. However, a better plan would be to stay for a few days and explore the town and surrounding countryside.
Here are the incontournables (must-sees):
The Old Town ramparts, gates, streets, and plazas.
Belvédère Fernand Moutet (dancing to Elvis Costello music is optional)
Cathédrale Notre Dame de la Nativité
Place Clemenceau, a large plaza where you find Vence’s city hall and the entry to the Cathedral.
La Frêne (large Ash Tree) is a magnificent tree located on a plaza of the same name. The tree, estimated to be 500 years old, won the “Coup de Coeur” prize in the “Tree of the Year 2021.”
Visit the Chapelle du Rosaire, where artist Henri Matisse decorated this chapel for the Dominican Sisters.
Vence Visitor Information
Tourist Office (website)
Villa Alexandrine – Place du Grand Jardin
Telephone: +33(0)4 93 58 06 38
Ville de Vence (website)
Market days: Tuesday and Friday mornings
Parking: Marie-Antoinette and Grand Jardin et Toreille. There are some areas in Vence where you can park for free for a short period but read the signs carefully.